Anatomy of an Amazing Fencing Comeback: South Korean Park Sang-young Snatches Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

Imre Park on the medals podium
Gold medalist South Korea’s Park Sangyoung (C), silver medalist Hungary’s Geza Imre (L) and bronze medalist France’s Gautheir Grumier attend the awarding ceremony of men’s epee individual of fencing at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 9, 2016. / CHINA OUT

He was so close! Up by 4 at match point in an épée finals, victory was imminent.

The Hungarian, Géza Imre, was competing in his fifth Olympic Games, since his debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he won bronze in the men’s individual épée. He tasted near glory by taking silver with his compatriots in the men’s epee team event.

And yet, there he was, the defending world champion, at the age of 41, seconds away from grasping gold at match point, up 14-10 on the Park Sang-young, the 20-year-old South Korean, ranked 21st in the world.

The drama was compelling even for me, a person who can’t tell the difference between an epee, a foil and a sabre. But my journalist’s eye saw that this was a compelling contest of righty vs lefty, East vs West, promising youth vs grizzled veteran.

Except for South Koreans, most spectators likely felt Imre was a split second from winning his elusive gold medal. Down 14-10, Park took it one step at a time. Countering a lunge, Park strikes, and makes it 14-11. “There’s one back,” said the announcer. Park goes low, and sneaks his epee in to hit Irme’s left hip. 14-12. “Park’s closed the gap.”

The crowd is beginning to think that Park has the slightest of chances. Imre lunges, aiming midriff, but is blocked by Park, who counters to get to 14-13. “There’s another one for Park!” shouts the announcer. “This is an amazing final now!”

Rio Olympics Fencing Men
Park Sangyoung of South Korea celebrates with his national flag after defeating Geze Imra of Hungary to win gold in a men’s individual epee final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Balancing caution and aggression, Park hops his way to Imre and then suddenly withdraws getting into a deep crouch, nearly losing his balance and falling backwards. The announcers are saying of Imre, “all he needs is a double. A double will do it,” at the very point Park strikes. Suddenly, it’s 14-14, and in épée, you don’t need to win by two. Gold goes to the winner of the next point.

“Géza Imre at the age of 41,” shouts the announcer, “was miles ahead, and then decided ‘I want to finish in a flourish. I want to finish with an attack.’ And Park has earned the right to be contested – a one-hit gold medal final!”

When play resumed, Park attacked. With his lunge, he stabbed the left side of Imre’s helmet convincingly, his helmet flashing green, his blade bending beautifully and fleetingly in a 180 degree arc.

“It’s Park! The 20 year old from Korea has done it. He’s won Korea’s first ever épée.”

Youth exploded. He flipped his helmet. He roared. He swung his épée in wild glee. He raced to his coach and slammed into him in an exuberant hug. “Unbelievable”, the announcer said, stressing each syllable. “That young man is a massive, massive talent!”

Perhaps it was Park’s youth that kept him in the hunt for gold. A promising fencer, a knee injury kept Park out of competition for much of 2015, which is why his ranking was so low when he got to Rio. But Park was not dwelling on the past. As he said in this article, he was in the moment.

“I was not even thinking about trying to win a gold medal. Since this is the festival for everyone, I wanted to enjoy myself. When will I ever compete at an Olympics again? I did not want to have any regrets, and I think it showed.”

Imre outpointed by Park in epee finals
Park scores the decisive 15th point.